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The Art of Socialist America

By (March 1, 2015) No Comment

Experience America, 
a Smithsonian permanent exhibit
Curated by Virginia Mecklenburg

American Art Museum 
Washington, DC

Artists on WPA (1935), Moses SoyerEver since somebody wanted to re-assign something to somebody or something else, there have been politics. Happily, I don’t know what, in the case of so many WPA paintings going to the Smithsonian American Museum, (as many of them did in the 1980’s) these politics were. Perhaps a switch was considered merely logical – even if logic doesn’t always rule in such cases and other possibilities are advanced and adopted. Perhaps somebody suggested that the paintings would be cared for; exhibited from time to time; and seen by a public that might be curious about a program that would smack, to a conservative element, of socialistic benevolence – not to mention paternalistic largesse. If I were in a squaring-off sort of mood, I would suggest that there’s nothing wrong with any of these things. But I will pass over it in the interest of my thesis, which involves the nature of something that is created for one purpose fulfilling another. And that is precisely what the paintings in this easy-to-stroll exhibit are doing.

I can’t claim to have been so attuned and cannot, in good conscience, take credit for it here.

It is interesting, instructive, and, sometimes, depressing, to study how a painting or sculpture that is commissioned by one entity will, over time, end up with another. Or get stalled between them. Or never be seen, after an attempted transfer, on the face of this earth again. And while the re-assignment of artworks can be a fragile proposition, it involves identity, provenance, and rejection and is as fascinating as any adventure we can know firsthand or read about long after its resonances have died down and assumes a rightful (assuming there is one) place in history.

In this case, I want to focus on artwork that was created for the Works Progress Administration and was re-assigned to the Smithsonian Museum. Ultimately, it doesn’t matter where something is, so long as it is protected, trotted out from time to time, and appreciated by a public that is not merely theoretical. In this case, all of these conditions have been met. They are, in fact, at the heart of Experience America at the American Museum.

I do not intend to explore the politics that were involved – though one can rest assured that there were some. Perhaps another time.

A few words on the WPA.

As is a matter of record, America’s infrastructure, which includes highways, dams, motorcycle trails, public tennis courts, national park systems, and a slew of other stuff that we often take for granted, was repaired and, in some cases, created, during the Great Depression as a way to get able-bodied men back on the workforce. And against the squealing of class-bound hysteria, President Franklin Roosevelt, who believed that the best way to restore self-respect was through the pick and shovel, set about creating a political structure that would employ millions of people. Some were dragged into camps, where they lived modestly, worked hard, and began to feel better about themselves.

Some of our labor-force was on call, depending on the project. And some of it was commissioned to reflect social and political realities that had been, and were continuing to be, affected by a soured economy and a shrinking status on the world’s stage.

This was the artistic program which produced murals for post offices and other official buildings; large-format paintings that would animate a sight-line; and easel paintings that were scattered, more or less ecumenically, throughout a country that had no idea that it needed such things until they arrived. Writers produced guidebooks that are readable to this day. Some, like Sherwood Anderson, went on to illustrious careers. Others have faded, like so many of their artistic confreres, into footnote status. (In 1935, Moses Soyer captured an artist-klatch, which appears to be a kind of painting-factory. Pictures in various stages of completion adorn the walls; artists mill about, contemplate an unfinished gesture – or stare into space. It is called, with deadpan accuracy, Artists on WPA.)

Automotive Industry (1940), Marvin Beerbohm

Post office (and, to a lesser extent, public library) murals commanded the most attention not only because they were big; they were communitarian in their reach and focus. As in Band Concert (1939), a mural study for the Corning, Iowa Post Office by Marion Gilmore, they showed small-town gatherings, with milling bystanders, twinkling porch-lights, and a bandstand that would soon resonate with familiar tunes. In others, broadly satirical elements were brought to bear on inherently comical situations. A rather common tack involved the celebration of an industrial might that was merely stalled and, because it was made to go at full throttle, would steam its way back into production. (Our muralists were unusually prescient in this regard. The swollen cylinders and hungry ratchets in Marvin Beerbohm’s Automotive Industry (1940), which was painted for the Detroit Public Library, were converted, after war was declared on the Axis Powers, into a mega-machine such as the world had never seen ; it also made the WPA obsolete.)

Snow Shovellers (1934), Jacob Getlar SmithFor the first time in American history, artists were instructed to hold the mirror up to customs, traditions, and activities that had become, somewhat naively, identified as American. Immigrant workers were not exactly a dime a dozen – though many of them were requited as such. In Homeward (1934), by Frank C. Kirk, Labor, in the guise of two men, is ecstatically heroicized, if dispassionately recorded. These men have seen it all, but are eager to get started. Their clothing is starkly functional; their forward gazes keep time with the digging they will do for hours on end; and their fiercely raddled faces have been touched with the flaws that hobble them and the character that keeps them going. Snow Shovelers by Jacob Getlar Smith (1934) provides us with a digging crew that seems voluntary. A car has been stuck or a driveway needs to be cleared – and these are the men to do it! (When push comes to shove, they might not scruple to charge ten or fifteen cents.) Whatever their motives, they’re on their way and they Oyster Shuckers (ca. 1934), Catherine M. Howell will get something done. Catherine M. Howell’s Oyster Shuckers (1934) is, however, as much about aesthetics as it is about the activity it describes. Its lushly-painted surfaces, spot-on-harmonies, and throbbing luminosity supersede the productivity that is peripherally – and wholesomely – celebrated. As we study its textural subtleties, we don’‘t give a damn about dollars and cents. We are too captivated by its poetry.

As with so many New Deal-era painters, Ms. Howell has been forgotten – in my view, unjustly. So too with the subway riders in Lili Furedi’s treatment of a jostling car. As with Oyster Shuckers, it serves both an aesthetic and documentary purpose, with the latter predominating somewhat. A great many WPA paintings are either vaguely or strategically stylized, as artists were trying out new forms in an age that encouraged it. In Subway (1934) Cezanne’s cubes and cones appear at the hems of dresses; in the crossed legs of passenger; in the structure of a mask-like countenance. Yet a story is being told and we are hard put to resist it. A voluptuary puts on lipstick; a musician waits, with his violin, for a stop that might bring in a little money; two passengers, a black man and a white woman, sit closely. (The artist wants us to see that they care very little about what obsesses another region of the country. And leads to violence almost every day.) Narrative dynamics aside, the chief delight of this painting is, as with Oyster Shuckers, its joyous painterliness. Yet it is, consciously or no, a Subway (1934), Lily Furedi projection of a polymorphous society in which sex and race are comfortably, if nervously, aligned. And while it deals with the present, it projects a future in which everybody will ride, if only in metaphor, a subway that provides instant diversity. Then as now, we grapple with sexual and racial equality. In this particular subway car, we’ve managed to strike a balance. But the world outside of it may well interfere.

Landscapes, cityscapes, and portraits cut into the exhibit’s human density. And while it may not have mandated inclusiveness, in appointing one artist instead of another, the New Deal guaranteed a subjective swath of talent and influences. It would have been a strain for a figure painter to try his or her hand at a slag-heap. Conversely, why lead confirmed realists into drawing rooms and house parties? The images that are most typical of the WPA are artist-driven. Its commission agents seemed to say – as such people rarely do: “Paint American life, but while you’re at it. . . give us something of yourselves.”

Golden Gate Bridge (1934), Ray StrongRay Strong’s Golden Gate Bridge (1934) combines two generally irreconcilable attributes: strength and limpidity. The thrust of the landscape is lateral, which opposes the work-in-progress that is being strung across the bay. It is, at once, about an attempted coup – which most engineering projects are – as well as nature’s roughly viable accommodation. It is about sunlight striking a landscape’s sloughs and hollows; the warm coloration that springs up in its wake; calm waters; well-sculpted hills. Strong is an heir of Corot, but is much more vigorous. Few painters have been able to fuse plein-air feeling with a realist agenda, if you will. Eakins’ river-men are bathed in natural light, but that light is of a post-industrial quality. Gloucester-style paintings are, for all of their vivid impastos and picturesque iconography, essentially painted postcards. Only Ogden Pleissner, Emil Kosa, and Edward Hopper – who will appear later on – managed to capture light without over-accenting it. (Hopper grappled with Impressionism in a somewhat different way than these other painters, who bypassed it like a small and unrewarding village.) For my money (or lack of it) Strong’s contribution is among the most arresting in the show.

Valley Farms (1934), Ross Dickinson In Valley Farms (1934) by Preston Dickinson, we are given a bird’s eye view of a Southwestern landscape, cut, from the top, by deeply groined hills. The shadow-patterns are gouged, as with a blunt instrument, while the color is hot and slathered. Only in the valley is there a hint of peaceful goings-on. (An enigmatic flame, however, challenges that assumption.) Charles Medearis’ grandmother rests amidst a pastoral landscape that seems to be embroidered on the picture-plane. (The egg tempera medium can occasionally do that.) Central Park is illuminated twice: once in a kind of fantasia (Skating in Central Park, 1934) in which skaters dip and glide below a skyline that is misted at its base. In Carl Gustaf Nelson’s Central Park (1934) New York City is as quiet as the small, but jovial transactions that take place inside of the park, which affords a panorama of toyish buildings, including the Plaza Hotel. A woman tries to feed a squirrel, who seems to be considering his options. A car pokes along. And everybody else seems to care only for the moment. As with Third Avenue (1934) by Charles L. Goeller, the painting is charmingly static. In both, one might look with an unforced nostalgia Tenement Flats (1933-1934), Millard Sheetson lost worlds that disappear so gradually we hardly notice that they’re gone. (The Third Avenue “El” is not only a case in point; it is emblematic of the urban restructuring that happens so quickly that we can’t quite assimilate its destruction.) New Deal paintings brought us cramped and serried conditions on the West Coast as well. Millard Sheets’ Tenement Flats (1933-1934) shows a multi-storied apartment building connected, on the outside, by stairways, which are conspicuously inhabited. It is likely that Sheets was acquainted with George Bellows’ paintings of New Yorkers who were more infamously congested – though Sheets’ message is not so gloomy. The tenants move freely about and seem to like each other. Bellows saw people as a sort of contagion, whose need to roam past Orchard Street might be addressed, if at all, with temporary solutions.

More raucous activities take the viewer into a circus atmosphere, which was painted by John Sloan; and Morris Kantor’s Baseball at Night (1933) is electric with anticipation. In Louis Guglielmi’s Relief Blues (ca. 1938), we find ourselves trying to look away from people who will stick with one another’s dramas and tragedies till the very last.

Juan Duran (1933-1934), Kenneth M. AdamsThe exhibit’s portraiture is particularly striking. We have an African-American girl (Somewhere in America (1934) by Robert Brackman, who, being a Russian immigrant, must have had a special feeling for outsiders. William H. Johnson’s Young Pastry Cook (ca. 1928-1930) has a breath of Soutine, though it also breathes its own exuberance. Juan Duran (1922-34) by Kenneth M. Adams is as strong as faith, as labor, as resistance. No checkered shirt has ever said more about a man’s comfort with himself. Its complementary color structure is as mesmerizing as its message.

Finally, there are two Edward Hoppers, which are in the museum’s permanent collection and have little to do with the politics of the New Deal. (Hopper’s political conservatism puts him on the periphery of this group.) Yet their timeless qualities provide a kind of bookend to paintings that were so very much about a time in which everybody scrambled and only the very rich were safe. Hopper’s gauntly-colored house might, however, suggest a sense of indomitability in inanimate form. His middle-aged figure, who wants to be present at another dawn, reminds us that, no matter how complicated our lives can become, we can re-connect with nature. If, in order to save money, we have to douse our lights, we can get up and watch the sun climb along a lower tree-branch, gild its traceries, and keep going. We may also take a walk and be stunned by something as ordinary as a clapboarded house. At any time in our lives, Hopper seems to tell us, we might be afforded a magnificent opportunity. And, depending on whether we’re susceptible or not, we can look up and appreciate something that is impregnated with mystery even if, recalling it the next day, we admit that it was just a little house on the dunes and probably needs, if truth were known, a fresh coat of paint.


Brett Busang, Art Correspondent for Open Letters Monthly, has contributed articles, reviews, and profiles to such publications as New York Press, The Bloomsbury Review, Footnotes, Loch Raven Review and numerous others. He is also a painter whose work has been widely, if haphazardly, collected.